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PEN America calls for Hollywood transparency on China censorship to ‘protect artistic freedom’

Brad Pitt stars in "World War Z," which did not get a theatrical release in China.
(Jaap Buitendijk / AP)

Amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, Hollywood has recently taken heat from politicians for its willingness to alter its movies to appease the Chinese government. Now PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, is also calling out the American film industry for self-censorship.

The New York-based nonprofit on Wednesday published a 94-page report detailing the ways China’s power has influenced not only what movies are shown in the world’s most populous country, but also what kinds of stories are told to a global audience.

PEN America, known for defending persecuted writers and journalists, called on Hollywood studios to adopt “strategies and practices to govern their interactions with the Chinese government” that “affirm and protect artistic freedom to the fullest possible extent.”

Among the many recommendations in the report — titled “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing: The U.S. Film Industry and Chinese Government Influence” — PEN America asked the major studios to commit that, if a film is altered to satisfy the demands of censors in China, those changes will be made only to the version released in China and not to the cut released globally. The group also asked studios to commit to publicly share requests for changes made by foreign governments. Additionally, it called on the Motion Picture Assn., which lobbies for the five major studios and Netflix, to issue an annual report on the industry’s relationship with China.

“Filmmakers cannot reduce their work to the lowest common denominator of only content that is deemed acceptable by one of the world’s most censorious regimes,” the report said.

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The MPA declined to comment.

Suzanne Nossel, drawing on her experience as a diplomat, tries to find a way through the speech debate in her new book, “Dare to Speak.”

Industry insiders who spoke to The Times about these issues have largely dismissed such recommendations as unworkable and potentially counterproductive. China’s censorship regime is famously opaque, and officials there do not tell studios why a movie has been rejected. Publicly proclaiming when their movies are being censored would likely damage studios’ standing in China, setting back years of work spent opening up the market.

But PEN America argues that China’s lack of transparency is a “feature, not a bug,” forcing studios to avoid content and themes that might be offensive to government interests. James Tager, the PEN America researcher who authored the report, said openness about censorship is a first step to fighting it.

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“The kid-gloves and hands-off approach that Hollywood is normalizing gives China a free pass to continue these policies when it comes to the global community,” Tager said in an interview. “If this phenomenon remains invisible, or semi-visible at best, no solution will ever emerge.”

PEN America’s document on the relationship between China and Hollywood has been in the works for more than a year. It comes after several weeks of attacks against Hollywood by Trump administration officials and their political allies accusing executives of kowtowing to Beijing’s demands while vocally supporting social justice causes at home. U.S. Atty. General William Barr last month railed against the film industry for making changes to movies including “Doctor Strange” and “World War Z” to placate China’s desire to project a positive global image.

Studio executives have brushed off criticism from Washington Republicans as political posturing at a time when the administration is trying to shift attention away from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Industry leaders say they are simply making smart business decisions in order to show movies in the world’s second-largest box office market. Getting movies seen in China is key for the bottom line of many big-budget productions.

Tager, however, argues that Hollywood’s self-censorship has negative consequences because it means studios won’t produce films touching on topics — such as Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square protests — that would surely provoke retaliation from the Chinese government. PEN America has previously spoken out against the imprisoning of Chinese journalists, the persecution of Uighurs and the arrest of pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong.

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“These are stories that need to be told,” he said. “If the Chinese film industry is unable to tell them, and if Hollywood is unable to tell them, who do we expect to tell them?”

“World War Z,” the 2013 movie about a disease outbreak that causes a zombie apocalypse, is a particularly timely example of China’s influence on global film content, Tager said. Paramount Pictures reportedly demanded the filmmakers change dialogue in which characters discuss China as the origin of the zombie outbreak. Despite the effort to avoid ruffling feathers, the film did not receive a release date in China.

Max Brooks, the author of 2006 novel “World War Z,” wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed that he refused to edit the parts of his book that would probably prevent its release to readers in China. He chose China as the epicenter for a reason, he said, noting parallels with how China’s government tried to control the narrative around the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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“I needed an authoritarian regime with strong control over the press,” he wrote. “Smothering public awareness would give my plague time to spread, first among the local population, then into other nations. By the time the rest of the world figured out what was going on, it would be too late.”

Tager suggested it may be in studios’ best interest to address the issue independently before U.S. government officials try to interfere in Hollywood’s business. Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) has suggested requiring disclaimers for movies censored for China, a sort of geopolitical twist on the ubiquitous “no animals were harmed” disclosures. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has proposed cutting off government resources for productions tweaked to suit Beijing.

Those proposals aren’t expected to gain traction in Washington or Hollywood. But Tager still thinks studios would be wise to take preemptive steps so that one form of government pressure isn’t substituted for another.

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“We believe it’s better for the industry to take this action on its own rather than waiting for the federal government to do it,” Tager said. “We would not want any legislative action imposing government censorship in the name of freeing Hollywood from government censorship.”


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